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Mrs. Osmond is not the only novel to be published this month about a woman who couples up with a monster. O happy day, the reissue of Rachel Ingalls’s MRS. CALIBAN (New Directions, $13.95)! Thirty-five years old, it is fresher than most things written yesterday. I wish I could say that I have always known about it. Instead I confess to the zeal of a new convert. Every one of its 128 pages is perfect, original, and arresting. Clear a Saturday, please, and read it in a single sitting.

Dorothy is a housewife. Years ago her son died during a routine appendectomy. Her next pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. Then the dog died. Her husband, Fred, had an affair; he broke it off, but now she suspects he is taking up with someone new. For the past three weeks, she’s been getting messages from voices on the radio that only she can hear. They tell her that she’ll have another baby, or report on unlikely subjects, such as a violin-playing chicken (“the Heifetz of the hen-coops”). On the day Mrs. Caliban begins, Dorothy hears a program about Aquarius the Monsterman, who has escaped from the Jefferson Institute for Oceanographic Research. Guess who turns up, seeking refuge, in her kitchen?

“Roman Forum, Rome, Italy” © colaimages/Alamy Stock Photo

The frog-man’s eyes are large and dark. His hands and feet are webbed. He stands six foot seven and has a bulbous but not unappealing head. Call me Larry, he says. (He speaks English with a “bit of a foreign accent.”) Dorothy hides him in the spare room. Under cover of darkness, she and Larry take drives, explore the neighborhood, and go to the beach. They talk about the torture he suffered at the institute and compare notes re: life on land versus life in the ocean. Their mutual attraction is strong and immediate. They do it on the living room floor, the dining room sofa, the kitchen chairs, and in the bathtub. Also on the beach. Also on the bed. Dorothy’s husband doesn’t understand why she is buying so many avocados (Larry’s favorite).

Ingalls’s narrative is a miracle of economy and grace. (Most of her books are novellas, which might explain her obscurity.) She writes straightforwardly, without winking, dropping only occasional hints that Dorothy’s tether on reality might be frayed. When Dorothy’s aquatic paramour worries that any child of theirs would be labeled a monster, for example, she gives this head-scratching response: “Born on American soil to an American mother — such a child could become President.” Larry’s connection to Caliban is clear enough — he is a frightening other to be feared, enslaved, and, when that fails, exterminated. As a romance, the book is tender; as a portrait of depression, exquisite and tragic. Dorothy can’t swim against the tides of grief and melancholia. Does Larry really exist? “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine” is not a statement that Mrs. Caliban ever utters.

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October 2019


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